Can we and should we complete research sustainably? — R Voice

Can we and should we complete research sustainably?

Shruti Turner
Shruti Turner Member Posts: 464 ✭✭✭✭✭
edited May 2021 in Everything & Anything

I've been thinking about this for a while now and still I've never had the conversation with anyone. I pride myself on caring about all three aspects of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. There is of course research that addresses each of these topics, for me I am finding the environmental part the most difficult to address whilst completing my research (not environmental-related). However, it seems to be something that gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list when it compromises efficiency or "the way things are" or even that things like waste are inevitable when creating and testing hardware. This is something I struggle with and in research I find that I have much less control over that in my own personal life.

I get uncomfortable seeing the many papers that are printed off for people to read once and then thrown away, participant information sheets and consent forms. I have tried to limit my printing and paper use throughout my PhD - I haven't ever printed off a paper to read, I do it all on screen, It was an adjustment definitely but it was doable. I remember during my time as student representative during my undergraduate studies, there was a huge push back from faculty members when students petitioned to submit their dissertations online rather than having to print and bind 2 copies at their own cost. This was also the case for essays and work that was mandatory to complete on computers, because faculty didn't want to be reading on screen (with no acknowledgement of students having to work on screen).

Other things, though feel like they aren't so possible: I'm working as part of a team to create new hardware which inevitably involves waste, or we work with clinicians to create equipment used only once and then it's thrown away (because of the research needs). Or how about conferences? Only in this past year have they routinely become virtual and even then I think most would agree that it's not the same for networking and events in person. In the pre-COVID world, it was the norm to fly across the world maybe a couple of times a year for conferences and I would guess that this will return when it can.

I wonder whether I am only seeing the negatives and that I am under-appreciating the trade-offs that need to be made. Do you consider sustainability when you do research, is it even possible to complete your research effectively by doing so?


  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭
    edited May 2021

    @Shruti Turner

    The struggle I have about sustainability is that irrespective of the choices and decisions I make in my personal and professional life - my individual actions make absolutely no difference. A recent John Oliver's episode on recycling, talking to sustainability experts at a recent conference and reading this year's plastic-waste-makers index...confirmed what I had always doubted. The players are massive corporations, who are sadly unwilling to change their ways because there is very little incentive to i.e., less than necessary collective political and democratic will that cares about the long-term well-being of us as a species on this planet. :(

    Nevertheless from a personal ethics and fiscal prudence standpoint, I am going to continue what I consider as my good practices in both personal and professional life .

    [reuse-repair EVERYTHING to the most possible extent, dont buy what you wont use, dont buy what wont last....]

    On this note...

    I think you are on the right track. However, mindset changes at multiple levels are needed to incorporate sustainability-awareness into daily practices as researchers. The thesis print out example you give is an institutional issue, a good one at that. I have always wanted to print out a painting of the "Destruction of the Library at Alexandria" as the front page of my thesis - but figured no one will ever read my it would be a bigger waste of paper and ink. The joke would be lost. 😂

    And I completely agree that the pandemic taught a lot of lessons to those who cared to observe and imbibe. For instance, research supplies became tighter. Gloves, solvents, face masks - orders for all instruments/consumables/chemicals took longer. But essentially, we figured out a way to deal with limited resources and maximized utility - while continuing to work with safety to be productive. I simply wish this continues even after "normalcy" returns because the whole thing is more efficient, less paperwork, less damage to the environment, less resources engaged to clean up the mess/recycle, money is saved - left, right, and center.

    As a curtis fan - the trouble of our planet started when we moved from a need-based society that harped on resource maximization to a desire-based society of "I feel like it, so I must have it". The distinction between wants and needs have blurred.

    Through the pandemic, I whole heartedly came to realize there is ZERO need to travel for conferences any more. Yes, 1-2 times a year because we are humans and our brains need in-person interactions to maintain meaningful relationships, among other reasons. But NOT multiple times. Honestly, I have absolutely enjoyed networking online without having to leave my bedroom, attending all the free or price-down conferences/webinars (especially those hosted by some key research societies, which are non-profits are amazing!!!). And even had a chance to rub shoulders (virtually) with some senior researchers and key players I wouldnt have had an opportunity to chat with had I gone to an in-person conference (would be too crowded, too difficult to catch people and make connections, some would simply nest in their hotel rooms or hang out with their fellow big-name buddies instead of interacting with nameless younger researchers in chat rooms 😂.

    I hope we can remember all these lessons post-pandemic and rethink the way we operate as individual researchers/laboratories/institutions...and please god! lets not go back to square one of business as usual!! 🙏😊

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 464 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Raj sundaram - wow! Such a long and detailed reply, I love it. Hopefully, my reply will do your post justice!

    I completely agree with you about feeling torn about the impact I as an individual can have on the big picture. There's so much I feel that has to be wide-scale corporate/policy/institutional change to have a significant impact. But, I think like you hint I also feel the personal responsibility. I do feel that as an individual only acting myself, if no one else was acting the same there would be no difference. However, I have noticed that slowly people around my are making changes to their actions too - though more in the personal sphere than professional. Whether, because of me, I don't know and wouldn't want to claim full credit for other people's choices. I do feel I have made an impact on my family (parents!) in particular who have slowly started sharing why they are making the changes etc. I think with awareness and action, which leads to conversation even us as individuals can make a larger difference. I do really struggle with the professionally, however. I feel I can have that conversation with my friends/family but it feels more awkward/inappropriate to question how people work.

    I am on the same page about moving to a needs based society - I think that human nature is opposite to that, and a big mentality change would be needed. Maybe even the wide-spread discipline to counter our natural inclinations! Here I feel I am delving into biology and psychology I definitely don't know enough about!

    I love your perspectives on virtual conferences/webinars and networking. It's really made me think about my experience - the virtual setting with moderated questions that I can type actually has helped me to engage with speakers and conferences/webinars more. I don't have the courage to speak up and ask a question in a seminar room, or approach someone that I don't know but online I feel more confident. I agree that a balance of in person and online would be great. I have had more opportunities over the past year than I ever had before to participate in sessions and learn from others that previously I would not have. I hope this aspect will continue long after the pandemic!

    I do feel like change is slow (sometimes I am frustrated by how slow!) but even as. I think about it writing this reply I have noticed changes even in my short time in academia (even outside of the pandemic. When I first started university - dissertations, theses, coursework etc were all done on the computer, then printed for submission - whereas now online submission has become increasingly popular. I do hope we can learn from the pandemic and come up with a hybrid approach that caters to our human needs to see people but also is more accommodating to the needs of our planet!

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭

    @Shruti Turner - Thank you for asking insightful questions that always make me think and formulate a structured response. Really enjoy this because I think about various things - but most of it is unstructured, nothing gets written down, and I dont always think my thoughts on a specific issue is going to be useful to anyone.

    Unless someone asks or starts a discussion like you do, there is no chance for me think all the way through, get to the core of an issue and summarize thoughts meaningfully.

    I am on the same page about moving to a needs based society - I think that human nature is opposite to that, and a big mentality change would be needed. 

    Curious - want to know a bit more about your thoughts on human nature and why you think human nature runs counter to a needs-based society.

    Of course, both of us are not psychologists and I dont have an opinion on human nature...

    [I do have a depressingly negative generic outlook about human civilization from patterns in history. It is that we are pretty good at finding ways to survive when our rears are under fire. But that happens only after ridiculous amounts of destruction, suffering and loss. Grim facts from history...this thing from which we never seem to learn (well) (enough).🙄😅]

    But...simply curious to know your thoughtprocess...

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 464 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited May 2021

    @Raj sundaram - It's interesting you say that you have a depressingly negative outlook on human civilisation, because I think I do too! I feel I have lost faith in the majority going what is right by the planet or others (particularly those different to us) if it disadvantages ourselves. I'll try not to get too political in this post, and stick to the environmental issues...

    I read a book called "The Selfish Gene" - I will admit, it was quite heavy in parts and I don't think I followed all the science thoroughly, but the general gist was that it is biology/nature for humans to want to protect themselves. We're just animals after all. Now, I'm not a believer that it means that we can't do anything to change that.

    I look at the world around us, the events of the past few years alone make me feel that need is not what drives society, but want. Economy comes before planet (and sometimes people!), sustainability initiatives are often halted or symbolic (or both!) because it affects global politics or the profit of influential people. To me this isn't a needs based society, but a society based on wants.

    The science has been out there for a long time, we have been able to see the negative effects of our actions on the planet but if anything things have been ignored and accelerated damage. Air travel, meat consumption, printing, lights...the list goes on! I think maybe I've gone on a bit of a tangent here to the original question - sorry about that!

    I guess, I see so much around me that shows me that wider need is not the driving factor behind policy and large-scale action, but personal greed/want. I feel like there are things that we can do to counter the damage to the planet, but choose not to.

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭
    edited May 2021

    Thanks for delving deeper on my request, @Shruti Turner .

    Ah - the Selfish Gene....Well...I read the book a long time ago. I dont remember the details. However, I do remember that Dawkins included altruism and communality as a part of the "selfishness" of the gene.

    [As a side-gig...I have come some way from being a die-hard Dawkins fan. 😂 I read the book when I was 19 or 20 and his other works as well. As I got older, read and learnt more - I am now of the opinion that the Selfish Gene is a theory that oversimplifies (inevitably - many theories are oversimplifications, have assumptions and limitations). Just like how Game Theory is an oversimplification but very unfortunately applied without sufficient nuance to politics, economics, sales, and many other metric-based systems to rather unfortunate consequences to us as a society.]

    Hmm...I see your viewpoint. My viewpoint takes a mild detour. Because a lot of what we do is completely self-destructive on an individual level as well as on a communal level. The politics/profit-based capitalism/consumerism unmindful of the destruction to the planet is just a side-show.

    The main show is our collective self-destructive irrationality.

    Self-destructive irrationality that manifests as

    plain self-destruction

    OR apathy and doing nothing

    OR self-destruction operating behind the façade of "making progress" without thinking about consequences

    (e.g., move fast -> break things -> play an active part in precipitating a genocide -> kind of apologize later (but not really) -> give a TED talk -> and have everyone "like" it 😂)

    OR self-destruction that operates with lies/hypocrisy as the basis

    (green-washing, pink-washing, purple-washing - washing of any color...).

    There is no logic to what a lot of us do at all - as individuals and communities. Not even selfishness. Because selfishness runs on the logic "I want to stay around as long as possible and I want the best for myself". If we were all REALLY and TRUTHFULLY been 100% selfish, things would have gotten better. Even by standards of being selfish - we are sloppy and what we are doing as individuals and a species makes no freaking sense.

    I have come to the conclusion that we are after all not very rational creatures.

    We just think about the short-term and the term of the "short-term" has shrunk to immediate gratification involving timescales of a few seconds. I can think of multiple crass jokes here. But I will let those pass.

    Sometimes, I imagine - what if we engineer a population with the ability to see reality and act on it, think about consequences and the long term, a population that is immune to stupidity and the instant gratification disorder our species suffers today.

    [I see - I am already treading dangerous grounds here. 😂]

    On a more practical level - I am of the opinion that unless we see and acknowledge our irrationality individually and collectively, and then mitigate the irrationality - very little is going to change. We are set on a path to self-destruction.

    Every time in history - we have escaped by a really small margin and managed to heave a sigh of relief. The latest was cold war with MAD - Phew! We didnt blow up the entire planet with our nuclear arsenal and conduct a free fireworks show for the ETs. Yaay!

    This time, we have ended up with possibly an irreparably destroyed planet, most of us are clueless about the reality, worse we are also clueless about the potential solutions and how to make them happen.

    On the basis of history and what we are capable of as a species (the worst and the best) - I am on the wall about being hopeful. 😂

    My most positive prediction is that just like our previous stupid self-created disasters - we will lose a chunk of the population, destroy a lot of stuff, simultaneously get to work to figure out a solution, and in a very messy way possibly beat the odds of going extinct and complete destruction by a very very slim margin. And those who remain at the end will call themselves "the greatest generation ever" -> Make new rules about harmony with nature and each other, peace, justice and love forever -> break those "rules" immediately -> cycle repeats. 😂

     Signed Eeyore.

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 464 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Raj sundaram I am on the same page as you about the book! I think it had some good points that stuck, but I can't say that as I listened to the book (it was one of my commuting audiobooks) that I warmed to Dawkins. What I liked about the book was that it made me think about the different things that were said, and look at the world around me with another perspective too.

    I find it so interesting what you say about people being self-destructive on an individual level too. What you say about logic, sums up much more clearly the thoughts swirling around in my mind. I've never been able to articulate my confusion about people's actions which are seemingly so contradictory - I think because I like to try to rationalise things based on logic and what makes sense in my mind. I struggle to comprehend the contradictory actions of individuals, but I think you've hit the nail on the head in that we just can't rationalise what is irrational!

    The cycle you put there at the end, really I can believe might well happen! It sounds like the start of a dystopian series but I guess if things don't change, and pretty rapidly, that might well be the way things go...

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭
    edited June 2021

    @Shruti Turner Quickly clarifying, I am not excluding myself from being irrational xD. I do think it is important to acknowledge the irrationality (as the first step, at the least).

    Not sure if it is a dystopian prediction. This is the cycle that seems to have been happening since the dawn of history.

    Also, another clarification - I am not saying we are not capable of doing great things. Just that cant but help see the HUGE streak of madness in it all. Throughout history - Egyptian civilization to any other civilization older/newer to the history we are making right now - we seem to be able to create absolutely great things, yet stoop to pits of mad self-destruction - sometimes bafflingly simultaneously. It seems to be a recurring pattern.

    I guess it is because we are a mix of rationality and irrationality - as individuals and hence, as collectives.

    [I always ask myself - trying to counter my own "Eeyore argument" - havent we made progress as a civilization? Based on premises provided by books like factfulness by Hans Rosling that say quite strongly "Things ARE getting better/things are better than before....".

    But the answer to that question to me seems to be almost always - "have we really?" or at best - "Yes, but also no". One reason is if we simply extend the timescale at a particular geographic location to see how people fared/how aspects outside of human life fared - an entirely different story contrasting "unidirectional progress" emerges.]

    "My views" are opinions. Many historians, political scientists, philosophers, etc. (some examples - Yuval Harari Noah's works, Kahneman's work, etc.) discuss "us" in detail with better evidence and better linguistic skills.

    Finally, it would be a happy and welcome surprise if my "optimistic" prediction goes wrong - in a good way - and things turn out for the better. I WANT (kind of) my prediction to go wrong. :)

    [Self-discovery as I write this, I am not 100% misanthropic, afterall...🤣]

  • Adaora Anyichie - Odis
    Adaora Anyichie - Odis Member Posts: 124 ✭✭✭✭

    I haven't alsa printed any paper since i started my PhD. I am reducing waste and creating a sustainable environment.